On the Road A scene from the film On The Road © Gregory Smith
(124 mins, 15)
How many will admit to having a shelf that still remains dotted with old, unread books, acknowledged classics which we think we should read but have never actually got round to it? The odd James Joyce, for instance, or retreating further into the past, several Joseph Conrads and, yes, even War and Peace. It’s a phenomenon known as the “paper white whale”, echoing another regularly unthumbed masterpiece, Moby Dick.
Coming back to living memory, there have been, of course the majority of the annual Man Booker shortlists. But also, still gazing resentfully at me in particular from a corner of the study, is an increasingly dusty copy of that much-trumpeted, immediate post-war, bible of the free spirit, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a kind of literary precursor to many of us baby boomers’ less-than-secret, “born to be wild”, lifestyle aspiration, Easy Rider - even if, truth were told, most of us would never eventually progress much beyond a three-speed pushbike.
Guided by the experienced hand of Brazilian filmmaker, Walter Salles, who previously directed a small masterpiece of the open road, The Motorcycle Diaries, which lovingly sketched an 8,000 mile bike trip through the South America of the young, pre-revolutionary Che Guevera and his pal Alberto Granado, On the Road finally arrives on the big-screen after a very long and chequered on-off Hollywood relationship.
Salles’ earlier film was set in 1952. On the Road, published a year earlier in 1951, collates semi-autobiographical events which begin in 1948 when aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Kerouac by any other name, meets up with charismatic - and decidedly dangerous - ex-con Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) in New York, who’s travelling with his precocious 16-year-old girlfriend Marylou (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart).
Intoxicated by each other’s respective lifestyles, in addition to almost every other kind of artificial stimulant known to citydweller, the pair decide to head off to the wide blue yonder which, over the next year or so, takes in Denver, San Francisco and Mexico. Not to mention the odd return trip to the Big Apple and its jazzier fleshpots.
Their picaresque travels are punctuated with a succession of fellow travellers including, as well as Marylou, a series of strangely pliant women (played by among others Kirsten Dunst, Alice Braga and Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss) which may, of course, have more to do with Kerouac’s wish-fulfilment than actual fact.
It’s a predominantly macho world in focus here, and there are a pair of especially colourful male additions to the Sal and Dean Show, notably Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), thinly disguised versions, respectively, of the mercurial writer William Burroughs and beat poet Allan Ginsberg.
However, it’s also worth pointing out that no fewer than three of the principal characters in this very accurate American scenario are actually played by Brits: Riley, a memorable rock burnout in Control and, more recently, as psychotic Pinkie Brown in the remake of Brighton Rock, Tom Sturridge, and Ed Dunkel, who also joins these increasingly frenetic criss-cross travels as flame-haired Danny Morgan.
Though less rose-tinted than The Motorcycle Diaries, the spikier, if faintly self-important, On the Road is always very watchable as well as being a handsomely crafted glimpse into the America of 60 years ago. Whether it’s true to, as they say, the spirit of the original, I cannot yet properly judge. For as my ears still echo to the click of Kerouac’s typewriter on the soundtrack of the film, the book itself, just an arm’s length away, still remains resolutely unopened.
(104 mins, 12A)
After years of being mostly ignored in screen terms, It seems that the closer we get to the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, the more we appear to have become inundated with images of that most claustrophobically horrific of global conflicts.
On TV, there’s been Parade’s End, Birdsong and even Downton Abbey. Now, less than a year on from Spielberg’s glossy film version of War Horse, which cast a principally equine eye on the trauma of the trenches, comes another Michael Morpurgo adaptation, which also went from book to stage, as a one-man play in this case, before arriving in the cinema with, however, considerably less panoply than its mega-dollar predecessor.
Private Peaceful – the name apparently comes from a gravestone Morpurgo discovered during research near Ypres - is the very human story of the two Peaceful brothers, Charlie (Jack O’Connell) and his younger sibling Tommo (George Mackay), whose tough-but-loving working-class existence in rural Devon is brutally cut short by the accidental death of their forester father. Forced to leave school, they and their doughty mother Hazel (Maxine Peake) have to go to work for the leering local landowner, a fat old Colonel (Richard Griffiths) with an inappropriately roving eye.
The brothers’ continuing domestic troubles are compounded by their shared love – in Tommo’s case unrequited – for lovely village girl Molly (Alexandra Roach, the young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady) who becomes pregnant and marries Charlie.
The rustic backcloth of Devon is now swapped for the battle-scarred countryside of Flanders after Tommo, lying about his age, enlists for the Great War where survival means not only dodging enemy bullets but also trying to avoid the verbal slings and arrows of a grizzled Sergeant (John Lynch) who seems, rather unaccountably, determined to break his men rather than battle-harden them. Cruel-to-be-kind never appeared so harsh.
In fact, the whole, uncompromising story is framed in the form of a long flashback from an army jail cell on the Western Front where it appears – and appearances can be deceptive – Tommo is awaiting death by firing squad. The final unravelling of this conundrum is genuinely suspenseful as well as quite moving.
The performances are all splendid, especially by the young romantic triangle as well as the three lesser-known, but equally fine, trio of actors (Samuel Bottomley, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Izzy Meikle-Small) who play even younger versions of the principals. Peaceful the story is not and it also shows you don’t need the budget of War Horse to depict Hell.
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David Gritten is away.